The Sign of Three
“These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious — but people think them more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In the “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, for instance, where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.” – Edgar Allen Poe
The basic dramatic engine of Sherlock, by this point, has become the cathartic click as the puzzle box’s mechanisms slide into place in a moment of triumphant Aristoteleanism. Over ninety minutes, this produces an interesting effect. Because ninety minutes is also more or less your basic length for a film, there is a tendency to describe Sherlock in those terms – as periodic triptychs of Sherlock Holmes films. With two thirds of the episodes set as event episodes (that is, premieres or finales), it’s easy to get swept up in this.
Nevertheless, Sherlock is unmistakably television. The Sign of Three is a prime example – it is well aware that it has no obligation to make a stirring case for its scale and scope. Its end is a self-consciously subdued homage to The Green Death, it contains not a single overt tease of Magnusson. It is confident that people who are watching it will probably do so again in a week, and so does not engage in the sort of sprawling, ambitious cliffhanger that films (and, to be fair, series finales) do to hold interest over the course of months and years.
Perhaps more importantly, it shares Doctor Who‘s willingness to push against traditional dramatic structures. If one pauses Sherlock to ask “how much time is left,”one is almost always slightly surprised – the big plot beats never happen at quite the moment they’re scheduled. The dramatic climax of The Sign of Three comes a full ten minutes from the end, which isn’t unheard of, except that the last ten minutes are all quite subdued and tension free, as opposed to an exploration of the consequences of the climax or setup for something else. The plot is based around a pair of extended flashbacks that don’t seem connected to each other or the larger episode until the end. Instead there’s the continual anticipation of resolution – of the moment where things slot into place and the seemingly disjointed plotting is suddenly revealed as the precise clockwork of dramatic unity.
The Sign of Three, in other words, shows Sherlock as a well-oiled machine. Sherlock’s best man speech – contributed largely (and obviously) by Moffat – is a marvel. As a high concept premise for an episode it is, of course, outright genius. “Sherlock gives a best man speech” is the sort of thing that, upon hearing, one immediately wants to see happen. And Moffat is predictably adept at moving from moments of comedic flailing and genuine emotion. “If I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend” is a spotless turn, as is the initial resolution of the Bloody Guardsman case, with the observation that John saved a life instead of solving a crime.
(It is actually probably worth detouring briefly to cover the matter of Moffat’s contribution to the script, in that it’s a credited contribution. One does not entirely imagine that this is the first script Moffat has done rewrites on for Doctor Who or Sherlock, but nevertheless, it is the first time he’s been credited, and in hindsight it appears to have been the start of a trend, with him taking a cowriting credit on three episodes of Doctor Who in 2014 as well. In the general case, reports have suggested that Moffat has performed his editing duties with a lighter touch than Davies, giving script notes where Davies would perform rewrites. This certainly wasn’t exclusively the case, but there was a sense of Moffat having considerably less to do with scripts that his name wasn’t on than Davies had.
So taking a co-writing credit here served as a tacit suggestion that Moffat was taking a more active hand on Sherlock than he had. It made a strong claim that the middle episode was no longer the “unimportant” one. Yes, The Hound of Baskerville was clearly an improvement on The Blind Banker in that regard, in that it was at least an adaptation of a major and iconic Sherlock Holmes story, but between this actually having a major event in it vis-a-vis John’s wedding and the fact that Moffat and Gatiss took writing credits on it, this felt more substantial. It’s also worth noting that this was explicitly and deliberately the purpose of Davies taking the co-writing credit on Planet of the Dead and The Waters of Mars.)
But what’s really interesting is what happens once the conclusion begins. There are a lot of moving parts to this puzzle box that get picked up later – two cases, Major Sholto, and Mary’s pregnancy are all subjects of conclusions. but this, especially given what happens to Mary in the actual Doyle stories, makes the subdued last ten minutes oddly stressful, not least because of a couple of shots that serve to highlight the way in which Mary’s wedding dress is tight around the abdomen, which leaves a constant lingering sense that this is all going to resolve with Mary suddenly collapsing in a pool of blood, such that the low key ending of Sherlock leaving the wedding is a strange sort of finish, with the cut to credits feeling more like a reprieve than anything else.
This, of course, is a key piece of setup, as the end of the season is going to turn heavily on the question of who Mary is, and, more importantly, what role she’s going to have in the larger narrative. This is, of course, familiar territory for Moffat, who has been poking at and deconstructing the sort of plot that would emerge from John being violently widowed ever since A Good Man Goes to War. And much of The Sign of Three, in hindsight, is about setting that up. The warmth between Sherlock and Mary, and the way in which she integrates smoothly into John and Sherlock’s life is too pronounced for this to actually go in the direction teased. Other writers might make a character this good just to kill her, but Moffat?
And yet the most interesting question – what he’s going to do next – remains opaque. There are teases without substance – the invocation of the next episode’s title, most obviously. But there’s no actual substance to them – just a sense that, over the course of these ninety minutes, the scope of what Sherlock can do as a show has changed.
Which makes the extent to which The Sign of Three is very much a display of “the sort of things Sherlock does well” an idiosyncratic but compelling virtue. This is an episode of Sherlock you can basically hand to anybody and say “this is why the show is good,” which, given that there are only nine of them and the first one is also brilliant, is not necessarily something it needed in 2014, but nevertheless something that’s worth doing periodically, especially for a show that burns this bright and brief in a given season. And yet by the end, after this episode’s fire is extinguished, the remaining calx is something difficult and ever so slightly unsettling. We’ve made a big dramatic mission statement about the nature of mysteries in Sherlock. We’ve done a warm and funny episode that pushes the series’ most obvious virtues to the forefront. All that remains is the main event – the season finale by the show’s marquee writer. And the job it has to do is both simple and massive: be nothing like anyone would have guessed.
January 20, 2015 @ 3:39 am
January 20, 2015 @ 4:07 am
Residue after a mineral or metal is "burnt". Phil is using it not as a metaphor for refinement of an essence, but the strange remainder of themes and allusions one might consider after the most prominent or flashy elements of the story are set aside in the viewer's consideration, and what they may augur for the final episode.
January 20, 2015 @ 4:24 am
Good essay, I like the reading of this episode as one that justifies Sherlock as television rather than film.
One thought, though:
"Other writers might make a character this good just to kill her, but Moffat?"
Mostly agree with this statement, but I feel like I should ask: Osgood?
Sorry, that feels like a bit of a cheap shot rather than an actual criticism, but it feels worth emphasizing.
January 20, 2015 @ 4:51 am
I don't think Mary and Osgood are in the same league. I mean, yes, Osgood was very nice, but it's not like we got the same sort of exploration of her character as we got with Mary. Mary is more like Rory in terms of the role she has with the leads — namely, a position that verges on being a lead character in her own right. Osgood, on the other hand, is fan service.
January 20, 2015 @ 5:21 am
Agreed. In "Day of the Doctor," Osgood is constructed as a really fun one-off character: a Doctor Who fan who gets to work for UNIT and run around in a Doctor Who story. Basically a different take on the same gag as Malcolm from "Planet of the Dead."
If she stayed around longer, either they would have had to figure out more to her character (after all, us real-life Doctor Who fans presumably have other interests), or at some point it would have just become awkward that there's a person in-story whose only purpose is to wear the costumes of old Doctors.
January 20, 2015 @ 5:33 am
Warm is a great word for this episode, especially considering the lovely canary-yellow color that permeates the wedding. I just re-watched it again recently, and boy what a delightful episode.
January 20, 2015 @ 5:36 am
Fair points. I'd argue that Osgood had the potential to be more than she got to be, but it's hard to argue that she was as fleshed out as Mary was even by the end of "The Sign of Three".
January 20, 2015 @ 7:46 am
I'll offer another two of Steven Moffat's characters who were killed in or shortly after their first appearance.
Captain Jack Harkness
Of course, I'm being cheeky here. In a way, both characters (especially River, because that was the plan all along) are subversions of the common writers' mistake of wringing conventional tragedy from the death of a charismatic and nuanced character when keeping the character alive offered so much more. In these cases, the characters were killed prematurely, but came back anyway, whether through technobabble or timey-wimes.
Jack, I think, was poorly served by the eventual direction of his character into anti-heroic angst. Though I think a lot of that came from the fact that Moffat never wrote for him again, and eventually his roguish characteristics disappeared. I sometimes imagine that Moffat, displeased with the development of Jack, was happy to keep River restricted to his own keyboard. Judging by how frequently she's been misunderstood over the last few years, I can understand how Moffat would prefer not to let other writers deal with a subtle characterization if he can avoid it.
January 20, 2015 @ 8:00 am
Although, I think by the time we get to the 2020s, Ingrid Oliver would likely make a marvellous Doctor herself.
January 20, 2015 @ 8:36 am
One of the things I love about this episode, and you allude to it with the Poe quote, is that there's actually a kinda sorta regular old Holmes mystery embedded in this uncomfortable, hilarious episode. I don't know that I'd say "The Sign of Three" (not to be confused with "The Power of Three") is the best Sherlock episode, but its mix of comedy, character, and a mystery with a human motive (as opposed to a "just because I'm one of the smartest people in the room" or "I'm obsessed with Sherlock" sort of motive) makes it perhaps my favorite so far.
Regarding that Poe quote: I'd say you could apply similar thinking to just about any aspect of fiction writing. The mysteries aren't "real" mysteries, but then the people aren't "real" people either.
January 20, 2015 @ 8:49 am
Is Captain Jack one of Moffat's characters, though? Certainly everything I've read suggests Davies and Barrowman himself had as much to do with creating him as Moffat did, but I might be misinformed. Jack's never felt like a Moffat character to me; he writes women like that but almost never men, unless there's someone I'm forgetting about.
That said, I'm near the end of season 2 of Torchwood, watching it for the first time, and of course now going back and reading all the Eruditorum posts I skipped at the time to avoid spoilers. I have to agree that Torchwood Jack is extremely disappointing. I get the "evolution" they had in mind, but I think it's a bummer of a choice; I think the show would have been something really magic if, say, they'd had Suzie in charge with Jack her loose cannon second in command, and then put him in charge with all his roguish irreverence and unpredictability. All the power and untouchability of Torchwood and it's being run by this irresponsible galoot? Can you imagine how much more fun that would have been?
January 20, 2015 @ 10:09 am
Sherlock is a documentary and the events are depicted in real-time.
Speaking of, I can't wait to see if/how Phil comments on the Caves of Androzani homage in His Last Vow, but I take it from past comments and allusions he's made that the essay on that one's going to be more, ahem, a meditation on certain modern news media figures (or figure) and the relationship that larger media itself has with them with His Last Vow serving as our panopticon.
January 20, 2015 @ 10:57 am
The Sherlock counterpart to Osgood would be killing off one of the two main Empty Hearsers, I think.
January 20, 2015 @ 12:31 pm
Totally agree with the comment about mix of comedy, character and mystery. Altho I'm less sure about the "human motive". Jonathan Small is in the running with Lord Moran as the least well-drawn antagonist that Sherlock faces. His unmasking is very much an afterthought ("Villain brought to justice – tick").
The mysteries aren't real mysteries and the crimes aren't real crimes. A terrorist attack on a parliament building is much more likely to be a disaffected idiot taking potshots than a cunning plan by a foreign power involving a disappearing tube train. A grieving brother is more likely to suffer depression, make fruitless FoI requests or glass a random squaddie in a pub than embark on a convoluted plot involving multiple impersonations. But then Sherlock is not that kind of show.
Another thought that strays across the mind concerns this episode's handling of the military and the Afghan War. Sholto is the archetypal honorable officer. Men died under his command which he obviously feels guilt for. And his situation is similar to Danny Pink's in Dr Who. An honorable man who makes a mistake in war and pays of price for it.
Of course, what both these narratives shy away from is the broader question of why and how and whether wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq should be fought. Wars become simply stages for personal dramas about "our troops" rather than acts of political violence by groups.
But Sherlock is not that kind of show.
That said, this episode was a lot of fun.
January 20, 2015 @ 2:00 pm
@Adam Riggio – I love the idea of Ingrid Oliver as the Doctor
January 20, 2015 @ 2:03 pm
Altho I'm less sure about the "human motive". Jonathan Small is in the running with Lord Moran as the least well-drawn antagonist that Sherlock faces.
I'm just saying there is ostensibly a reason for the crime that doesn't amount to "let's play a clever crime game, since we're both so clever, eh Sherlock?" I'm not making any claims that the character with the motive is especially well-developed, though of course it would be nice if he were. I don't even really care how realistic the crime is as a response to that motive; I'd just like there to be one that isn't stiflingly self-referential.
Luther springs to mind as a show that does a lot of detective-show things the way I'm more inclined to appreciate. It's often, to say the least, larger-than-life itself, but still. I agree with you: Sherlock isn't that kind of show. But I quite like it when it sometimes sorta kinda is.
January 20, 2015 @ 2:49 pm
I suspect Luther is a really polarising show – either you love it or you hate. It's overt pulpiness and sadistic violence are a bit much for me – I do not need "Cracker" remade by Quentin Tarantino. Even if it's got the wonderful Idris Elba in it.
January 20, 2015 @ 4:32 pm
This is the episode where Sherlock forgets he's not the Third Doctor at the end, isn't it?
January 20, 2015 @ 7:42 pm
Next episode he forgets he's not the fifth.
Still, if you're going to steal from Doctor Who, it's certainly a good pair of episodes to steal the endings of. I'd love to see Cumberbatch do a variation on the ending of The Massacre, though. Wouldn't that be gruesome?
January 21, 2015 @ 6:24 am
So glad to see this pop up this morning. Just watched it again Monday. For me, this is the best middle episode and has so much going for it that I'm always amazed to ever hear a negative word against it. Finally, a great middle story in an almost perfect season.
January 21, 2015 @ 8:44 am
what both these narratives shy away from is the broader question of why and how and whether wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq should be fought
There's an implied criticism in "A Study in Pink":
— "That's the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done!"
— "You invaded Afghanistan."
January 21, 2015 @ 10:18 am
It's overt pulpiness and sadistic violence are a bit much for me – I do not need "Cracker" remade by Quentin Tarantino.
Well, good news! Because that's not at all what Luther gives you. 🙂
That said, I get how it might be hard to watch. I nearly had to give up after Season 1 Episode 4. I'm glad I stuck with it, and I found it all to be well worth watching, but I'm not sure how eager I'd be to steel myself for a rewatch.
Sherlock, however, I'd stick that on anytime and enjoy the hell out of it. That's the upside of so many of its crimes being games played by supervillains, I suppose.
January 21, 2015 @ 4:15 pm
It sure would be gruesome to see Dodo join Sherlock… 😛
" 'ello, an' how'd'y'do, Mr. Sherlock! Where's the telephone?"
January 21, 2015 @ 10:18 pm
Really enjoying the Sherlock essays. I absolutely adore the combination of comedy that switches straight into such heartfelt lines that I can find myself tearing up at points during the speech. "Sherlock does best man speech" – truly wonderful.
January 26, 2015 @ 7:14 am
From what I remember from commentaries, Davies told Moffat "BTW, Jack's omnisexual" not expecting Moffat to do much with it, and Moffat ran with the idea giving Jack his initial characterization. Also, Davies has said that Moffat was the one writer he didn't rewrite. Which suggests that Jack's initial characterization is largely Moffat's work.
January 26, 2015 @ 9:25 am
UrsulaL: I definitely wouldn't discount Moffat's contribution to the character — that certainly suggests that even if the concept came entirely from RTD and Barrowman, the words and behavior most likely were Moffat's. I just wonder how much actual ownership he feels of Jack, vs. a character like River who is presumably entirely his concept.
January 26, 2015 @ 2:18 pm
My understanding of the structure of this episode was not that Moffat did rewrites, but rather that the three parts of the episode (the speech, the bachelor party, and the murder) were divided between the three writers, and Moffat took the speech. Then the three threads were woven together.
Which is a really interesting collaborative approach. Particularly since the different sections would have been at least partially filmed separately (particularly the speech, which was mostly in one location) and that they are three distinct time periods in the story.
It's almost a cut-and-paste mashup of three different episodes for three different shows, with three different writers.